The Church Is One (John 17:20–23)

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

—John 17:20–23

What does it mean to be one? Rome answers that this oneness is organizational. The Catholic Catechism says, 

“The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Savior, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it. …This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him.”

To not be part of of Rome then is to be guilty of then schism, heresy, and/or apostasy. Ecumenical movements of the past have largely sought some kind of organizational and formal unity.

Today I believe the predominate ecumenical spirit is one that is largely anti-organizational an informal. It esteems tolerance as highly as it disdains doctrine. It seeks unity for the sake of unity, championing love as the highest value and motivation. It doesn’t want to see our distinctions unified under one umbrella, so much as it wants everyone to confess that all their distinctions are ultimately insignificant and meaningless. Except of course for the supreme values of tolerance, unity, and love. Those remain paramount.

The strength of the former effort is the appeal to a visible unity and oneness. The strength of the latter is realizing how this oneness is truly rooted in Jesus’ calls in the upper room for the disciples to love one another as He has loved them. The problem with both approaches is that neither gives full and due respect to the context of Jesus’ petition. Lloyd-Jones’ words remain relevant seventy years after they were spoken. 

“I suppose that if there is thing that characterizes the life of the church and of Christian people more than anything else in this generation, it is the interest in what is called ‘ecumenicity’. …What we are generally told can be summarized like this: the greatest scandal in the world is a disunited church, and this scandal must also be removed because it is the greatest hinderance to evangelism. …The people concerned are very fond of quoting John 17, it seems to be the chapter on which they base everything, but what interests me is that they invariably seem to speak of this chapter as if there were nothing in it at all except this plea for unity. …How little we hear about the work which the Father had given the Son to do, about the people whom he had given to him, and so on. Instead, the impression is given that John 17 has only one message in it, and that is this great question of unity. In other words, we see the terrible danger of isolating a text, extracting it from its context.”

What does it mean for the church to be one? I submit we may find the answer by beginning with the humble assertion that our Lord’s prayer was answered! Our problem with defining “one” begins because we assume something is not, when it is. Jesus began this prayer with this overarching petition, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.” Everything else is subservient to this petition. Jesus prays for His own under this prayer. In v. 10 He says, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.” The Father, Son, and Spirit aim to glorify their name in the church. For the glory of Christ, the church is one.

“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

“He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:51–52).

“For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Ephesians 2:14–16).

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1–6).

Instead of trying to manufacture a unity that is not, the church should strive to maintain a unity that is. She may begin to do so by confessing with the saints of old that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

The Bishop: Don’t Trade Truth for Peace

“Controversy and religious strife, no doubt, are odious things; but there are times when they are a positive necessity. Unity and peace are very delightful; but they are bought too dear if they are bought at the expense of truth. There is a vast amount of maundering, childish, weak talk nowadays in some quarters about unity and peace, which I cannot reconcile with the language of St Paul. It is a pity, no doubt, that there should be so much controversy; but it is also a pity that human nature should be so bad as it is, and that the devil should be loose in the world. It was a pity that Arius taught error about Christ’s person: but it would have been a greater pity if Athanasius had not opposed him. It was a pity Tetzel went about preaching up the Pope’s indulgences: it would have been a far greater pity if Luther had not withstood him. Controversy, in fact, is one of the conditions under which truth in every age has to be defended and maintained, and it is nonsense to ignore it.” —J.C. Ryle, Light from Old Times

The Doctor: There Is War Among the Gods

“Furthermore, because man is in this relationship to God he is also in a state of enmity against himself. He is not only engaged in this warfare against a God who is outside of him;but he is also fighting a war within himself. Therein lies the real tragedy of fallen man; he does not believe what I am saying but it is certainly true of him. Man is in a state of internal conflict and he does not know why it is so. He wants to do certain things, but something inside him tells him that it is wrong to do so. He has something in him which we call conscience. Though he thinks he can be perfectly happy whatever he does, and though he may silence other people, he cannot silence this inward monitor. Man is in a state of internal warfare; he does not know the reason for it, yet he knows that it is so.

But in the Scriptures we are told exactly why this is the case. Man was made by God in such a way that he can only be at peace within himself when he is at peace with God. Man was never meant to be a god, but he is for ever trying to deify himself. He sets up his own desires as the rules and laws of his life, yet he is ever characterized by confusion, and worse. Something in himself denies his claims; and so he is always quarrelling and fighting with himself. He knows nothing of real peace; he has no peace with God, he has no peace within himself. And still worse, because of all this, he is in a state of warfare with everyone else. Unfortunately for him everyone else wants to be a god as well. Because of sin we have all become self-centred, ego-centric, turning in upon this self which we put on a pedestal, and which we think is so wonderful and superior to all others. But everyone else is doing the same, and so there is war among the gods. We claim that we are right, and that everyone else is wrong. Inevitably the result is confusion and discord and unhappiness between man and man. Thus we begin to see why the Apostle prays that we may have peace. It is because of man’s sad condition, man’s life as the result of sin, and as the result of his falling away from God. He is in a state of dis-unity within and without, in a state of unhappiness, in a state of wretchedness.”

—D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God’s Ultimate Purpose, (Baker Book House, 1979) pp. 38, 39

The Glorious Danger of Being Caught Up into Christology (Philippians 2:5–8)

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5–8).

All of Scripture is God’s holy, authoritative, inspired, inerrant word, profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, but with Philippians 2:5–11, we come to a most holy place. Like Moses with the burning bush, one feels they stumble onto it. We thought we were simply walking along, then suddenly we are confronted with God manifest on earth. Perhaps, rather than saying we stumble onto it, we should say we get caught up into it. That’s exactly what Paul appears to have done, He does so frequently in his letters. It is as though at the mention of Jesus Christ and His humility, Paul gets carried up. He doesn’t get carried away. He gets carried up. It is one thing to be distracted  by chasing rabbits. Those are unnecessary endeavors. It is another to be distracted by chasing a unicorn. Remaining focused on a lesser thing when confronted with transcendent glory is no virtue.

This is the locus classicus, the definitive text of Christology in the Scriptures, and we don’t come to it directly. Paul doesn’t take up the subject matter of Christology. He stumbles onto it, and then He gets caught up into it. Paul is writing to the Philippians about unity and humility and suddenly, we are caught up with Him into the mystery of the God-man.

This is the glorious danger that all true discussions of Christian ethics and discipleship are liable to. One should always feel they are on the verge of tripping into the Trinity or being caught up into Christology. It is a danger one should readily welcome and plunge into. If our discussions of discipleship avoid this glorious danger, they fail. They fail to be an expression of our living as heavenly citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ, the gospel of the God-man (Philippians 1:27). 

While we cannot replicate the gospel, we should imitate it. We cannot live the gospel, but we should live gospel-shaped lives. The gospel not only provides a river of life, it shapes the banks in which that river is meant to flow. Pondering the mysteries of the incarnation of our Lord, the hypostatic union, Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, is not simply as practical as church unity, it is essential to it.

The Doctor: Don’t Preach Unity!

“Putting all the ecclesiastical corpses into one graveyard will not bring about a resurrection!

To me one of the major tragedies of the hour, and especially in the realm of the church, is that most of the time seems to be taken up by the leaders in preaching about unity instead of preaching the gospel that alone can produce unity.

If all the churches in the world became amalgamated, it would not make the slightest difference to the man in the street. He is not outside the churches because the churches are disunited; he is outside because he likes his sin, because he is a sinner, because he is ignorant of spiritual realities. He is no more interested in this problem of unity than the man in the moon!” —D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from Messenger of Grace by Iain Murray

The Strife of “Unity” and the Unity of Striving (Philippians 1:27–28)

“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.” —Philippians 1:27–28

There is a kind of striving that is to be done in unity and it is the very kind of striving that is conducive to unity. If there isn’t the kind of striving Paul refers to in Philippians 1:27, there will be strife. C.S. Lewis said, “You cant get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” If we make avoiding strife primary, strife is exactly what we’ll get; but if we strive, there will be little strife.

“Striving” paradoxically modifies “standing firm” here. “Standing firm” has a defensive connotation, whereas “striving” has an offensive one. Defending the gospel is like defending a howitzer. We are to stand firm in and for the gospel, knowing that it is the gospel that advances (Philippians 1:12). Striving must happen because the gospel is primary. Christ is primary. Strife within the church happens when the gospel is demoted. 

This is why so many calls for love, unity, and peace fall flat, even within the church. Unity is something that is, and it is in Christ, in the Spirit, in the gospel (cf. Ephesians 4:1–6). If a church makes unity her god, she’ll tear them apart. If unity is primary, you can’t expect the Spirit of unity to get on board, because the unity He has created is found in Christ our Head.

Men need doctrine for there to be unity, doctrine for which they both stand and strive. Jude admonishes us to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Paul commanded Timothy to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20). He says this again in 2 Timothy 1:14 adding, “By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (emphasis mine). We can count on the Spirit in whom we have unity to be with us if we stand firm in, strive for, and guard the gospel. Forfeit the gospel and whatever unity we may enjoy, know there is nothing of the Holy Spirit in it and it is sure to backfire.

Unity is not primary; it is secondary. Unity isn’t the root; it is a fruit. This is not unity at all costs. It is a unity that is costly. This is not a unity that ends all opposition. This is a unity that stands up against opposition. Too many saints are after a unity in which everyone likes us, instead of a unity that will stand up against everyone hating us. Unity with this world is enmity against God. So, if you want the saints to get along, get them in the fight.

Tis the Soloist, not the Choir (1 Timothy 6:3–10)

Often it’s said that truth divides, but just as often this is misunderstood. When a church gets antsy under a humble pastor, one who’s placing himself under the Word, and tells him to quit preaching doctrine because it’ll divide the church, it’s they who are the enemies of unity. Truth divides, but it doesn’t divide the church. It divides sheep from goats. Jesus said His sheep hear His voice. When Jesus’ words are taught, and animals start scattering, the church isn’t being divided, but purified.

Have there been clumsy shepherds who unwittingly whack the sheep with the Sword causing them to stray? Guilty as charged. But in such an instance, it wasn’t the truth that divided, but the ham-fisted handling of it. Have immature sheep strayed when they should’ve stayed? Certainly, but clarity on that in a bit. For now, neither one of those things should keep us from affirming the truth, that truth unites, and false teaching divides.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:3 to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The command isn’t to make unity, but to maintain it. For the church, unity is, and the unity that is, is in Christ. Paul elaborates, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4–6).”  This oneness is reality for the church. Maintaining unity means living out this reality. Teaching concerning this reality, so that one can live it out, is called doctrine. True unity cannot be had without doctrine. Deny these truths and you deny the glue of the Spirit by which He bonds the church together.

So, when the immature Christian leaves the church because true doctrine is being taught, what’s really happening is that some previously inculcated lie is being exposed. It wasn’t the truth that destroyed unity, but the lie. Achan has been hiding something, and the truth is exposing it. Truth may purify, but it doesn’t divide.

The only unity the church has, is unity in Christ—unity in truth. Anything else is just an illusion. “Unity” in indifference doesn’t count. Say two peewee baseball teams meet for the last game of the season. One team has lost every game and not one player wants to be there. Each of them is thinking of something different they’ll do after the game. Concerning the game, win or lose, they don’t care. They all have the same spirit, but no one comments “Wow! They’re so unified.” The second team has won every game that season, and they want to make it a perfect season. They’re unified. The church isn’t to be a collective of people singing, “I don’t care,” but “Jesus is Lord!” This is the tune of the church. Doctrine is music ed. False teaching attempts to alter the song. Saying truth divides is like saying that playing the right notes divides the orchestra. No! Tis the fat-headed, glory-craving, improvising virtuoso soloist who rebels against the Composer/Conductor. You can’t improve this song. Different not only divides, it defaces.